Opinion | Are Anti-Trump Republicans Doomed to Repeat 2016?

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By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

Around the time that Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, there was a lot of chatter about how anti-Trump Republicans were poised to repeat the failures of 2016, by declining to take on Trump directly and letting him walk unscathed to the nomination.

This take seemed wrong in two ways. First, unlike in 2016, anti-Trump Republicans had a singular, popular alternative in Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, whose polling was competitive with Trump’s and way ahead of any other rival. Second, unlike in 2016, most Republican primary voters have now supported Trump in two national elections, making them poor targets for sweeping broadsides against his unfitness for the presidency.

Combine those two realities, and the anti-Trump path seemed clear enough: Unite behind DeSantis early, run on Trump fatigue, and hope for the slow fade rather than the dramatic knockout.

But I will admit, watching DeSantis sag in the primary polls — and watching the Republican and media reaction to that sag — has triggered flashbacks to the 2016 race. Seven years later, it’s clear that many of the underlying dynamics that made Trump the nominee are still in play.

Let’s count off a few of them. First, there’s the limits of ideological box-checking in a campaign against Trump. This is my colleague Nate Cohn’s main point in his assessment of DeSantis’s recent struggles, and it’s a good one: DeSantis has spent the year to date accumulating legislative victories that match up with official right-wing orthodoxy, but we already saw in Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign the limits of ideological correctness. There are Republican primary voters who cast ballots with a matrix of conservative positions in their heads, but not enough to overcome the appeal of the Trump persona, and a campaign against him won’t prosper if its main selling point is just True Conservatism 2.0.

Second, there’s the mismatch between cultural conservatism and the anti-Trump donor class. Part of DeSantis’s advantage now, compared with Cruz’s situation in 2016, is that he has seemed more congenial to the party’s bigger-money donors. But many of those donors don’t really like the culture war; they’ll go along with a generic anti-wokeness, but they hate the Disney battles and they’re usually pro-choice. So socially conservative moves that DeSantis can’t refuse, like signing Florida’s six-week abortion ban, yield instant stories about how his potential donors are thinking about closing up their checkbooks, with a palpable undercurrent of: “Why can’t we have Nikki Haley or even Glenn Youngkin instead?”

This leads to the third dynamic that could repeat itself: The G.O.P coordination problem, a.k.a. the South Carolina pileup. Remember how smoothly all of Joe Biden’s rivals suddenly exited the presidential race when it was time to stop Bernie Sanders? Remember how nothing remotely like that happened among Republicans in 2016? Well, if you have an anti-Trump donor base dissatisfied with DeSantis and willing to sustain long-shot rivals, and if two of those rivals, Haley and Senator Tim Scott, hail from the early primary state of South Carolina, it’s easy enough to see how they talk themselves into hanging around long enough to hand Trump exactly the sort of narrow wins that eventually gave him unstoppable momentum in 2016.

But then again, a certain cast of mind has declared Trump to have unstoppable momentum already. This reflects another tendency that helped elect him the first time, the weird fatalism of professional Republicans. In 2016 many of them passed from “he can’t win” to “he can’t be stopped” with barely a way station in between. A rough month for DeSantis has already surfaced the same spirit — as in a piece by Politico’s Jonathan Martin, which quoted one strategist saying resignedly, “We’re just going to have to go into the basement, ride out the tornado and come back up when it’s over to rebuild the neighborhood.”

Influencing this perspective, again as in 2016, is the assumption that Trump can’t win the general election, so if the G.O.P. just lets him lose it will finally be rid of him. Of course that assumption was completely wrong before, it could be wrong again; and even if it’s not, how do you know he won’t be back in 2028?

Then, the final returning dynamic: The media still wants Trump. This is not offered as an excuse for G.O.P. primary voters choosing him; if the former president is renominated in spite of all his sins, it’s ultimately on them and them alone.

But I still feel a certain vibe, in the eager coverage of DeSantis’s sag, suggesting that at some half-conscious level the mainstream press really wants the Trump return. They want to enjoy the Trump Show’s ratings, they want the G.O.P. defined by Trumpism while they define themselves as democracy’s defenders.

And so Trump’s rivals will have to struggle, not only against the wattage of the man himself, but also against an impulse already apparent — to call the race for Trump before a single vote is cast.

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